More than 14,000 properties in Mobile County could be impacted by proposed changes to federal flood maps along the coast, but officials are concerned some of those who are affected might be forced to pay out of pocket to challenge the maps.
The changes are being made to the federal Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM), which the federal government — primarily the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — uses in floodplain mapping activities and to prevent loss of life, protect property and preserve national functions during strong storms.
Every few years, FEMA updates those flood maps to reflect current or more accurate hazards in various areas and to use the latest methods of calculation available. These maps will take effect in 2019. The current flood map has been in use since 2010.
In a briefing this week, Mobile County Commissioners took issue with the burden being placed on residents who are adversely affected by the most recent proposed changes to those maps.
Properties that fall in what FEMA defines as a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) are required to have flood insurance if the homeowner has a federally backed mortgage. The changes coming next year are expected to roll more homes into that category, likely forcing scores of homeowners to purchase flood insurance for the first time or add onto existing coverage.
Matthew Barclift, who works in the county’s public works department, said his staff has already been working to notify those who could be affected by the coming changes through a mass mailing campaign as well as a number of federally and locally organized public meetings.
“It’s different for different parcels of property, but the maximum rate increase is something like 18 percent per year until you reach the appropriate actuarial rate,” Barclift said. “But we’re not insurance agents, so we’re strongly encouraging people to speak with their own agents.”
While the increase could be high for some in more flood-prone areas, commissioners this week seemed more upset about the process FEMA has established to implement these new maps, which they say leave homeowners with little or no reasonable options for contesting changes.
Specifically, homeowners challenging their location in the new maps will be required to “prove the change was scientifically incorrect” and provide support documents to back up that claim — something they will have only 90 days to do and would have to pay for out of pocket.
Speaking to that, Commissioner Jerry Carl said he found it “unbelievably unfair to citizens.”
“The county has got very little input, if any at all, on this. FEMA is dictating this and they’ve only allowed a 90-day window to respond. Truly the only way you can respond is with documentation to back up what you’re actually asking for,” Carl said. “[People] are going to have to hire an engineer or something to do these studies in a 90-day period, which is unheard of.”
What’s more, FEMA has also put the county in the precarious position of accepting those appeals, reviewing them and approving or denying them before passing them up to Washington, D.C. They’re trying to make the county “the bad guy,” according to Carl. He also noted that FEMA had been working on its most recent flood maps for at least two years but had only allowed citizens a three-month window in which to address any concerns they may have.
According to Barclift, efforts are already underway to notify residents in areas that could be highly impacted by the parameters of the new flood zones. He identified those primarily as the coastal communities of Dauphin Island, Bayou La Batre, Fowl River and Hollinger’s Island, though he also mentioned the cities of Saraland and Creola.
While Commissioner Connie Hudson expressed similar concerns, Commission President Merceria Ludgood said the county might have no choice to but act in the best interest of its citizens, even if that means sending up an appeal that doesn’t meet FEMA’s standards.
“We can pass it on and say, ‘this looks like a good appeal, and it would work a hardship to this affected person, if they were not given a fair hearing,’” she said. “We may have to push back on this because that’s really … it’s really not fair.”
“Mobile, Alabama, is the rainiest place in the United States,” Cortinas said. It rains “on average 67 inches a year and 59 rain days a year.”
More information about the proposed changes to the flood maps in Mobile County can be found at alabamaflood.com/map including interactive graphs with a searchable database of addresses. The county has also established an email address, floods@mobilecountynet, to answer questions regarding flood mapping.
(Photo | Mobile County) Mobile County has identified coastal areas (shaded in red) that can be remapped in new FEMA flood maps.